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Getting Creative in the Floodplain

They don’t call it the “mighty” Ohio River for nothing.

As one of the largest rivers to traverse some 1,000 miles of the North American continent, it’s mightiness comes from both its role as a historic passage and boundary line, as well as its propensity to rise above its shorelines, flooding surrounding communities. Fortunately, smart planning and clever design are at work in the John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, where a swath of green serves as a front door to the city, a popular gathering place, simultaneously offering protection from and a renewed connection to the historic Ohio River.

In February 2018, Smale Park faced it’s first true test against an Ohio River flood. Waters crested at 60.53 feet, well above normal levels, making it the worst flood Cincinnati has seen in two decades. However, the 32-acre park had been designed from the beginning to withstand the River’s tumult, with many park elements serving as flood barriers or designed to be removed to higher ground.

The flood-mitigation strategies have proven to be a success—both with the park demonstrating its resilience to flooding and furthermore serving to reconnect the community with the river. As the Principal designer, landscape architect Mark Dawson said of the park, “Smale is about connecting the city/community to the river—literally. That is what we heard when we researched the city’s colorful history and talked to the people here. That need to reconnect to the river is because of the history of the city’s relationship to their river. The high bank nature of the river enabled commerce to flourish along Cincinnati’s Main Street where goods came into Cincinnati on the commons. People want to physically reconnect to that heritage.” Once a privatized space, this popular destination park now offers a place of connection with the might of the river.

The flooding in February 2018 was the worst flooding that Cincinnati had seen in two decades, fortunately, the park was designed exploring a multitude of strategies to make the park resilient to Ohio River flooding, and was able to be cleaned and re-opened within a week of flood waters receding.

That February last year, news of the rising waters meant park employees had five days to prepare, using a detailed Flood Response Plan created in consultation with the design team. Throughout the design process the team had worked out with the Parks department ways to evaluate trade offs of having park elements located in the floodplain, close to the water’s edge where everyone wants to be, with having to occasionally remove these elements to prepare for flooding. Collaboratively they came up with a strategy that both activated the whole of the park site, while also limiting the amount of labor involved in either sandbagging or removing elements.

Many of the parks features are designed to be removed easily from the floodplain when the water rises. In the days before the flood, park employees removed the rail-car inspired metal picnic tables, and rolled away the restrooms under the famous Roebling bridge—which were built on a trailer on wheels. They also collected all the electrical equipment for the popular 19-foot long P&G go Vibrant Interactive Piano keyboard public art installation, as well as bollard lighting along the riverwalk. Even special specimen roses in the rose garden had been planted in containers designed to be quickly plucked out of the garden and removed to higher ground in case of flooding.

The whole park had been designed as a series of terraces, that create not only a grand procession down to the water’s edge—for example, the steps aligning with Vine Street that are flanked by water cascades, water curtains, and glass balconies which are often featured in ceremonies and wedding photography—also help the park to accommodate seasonal flooding by lifting key areas out of the floodplain and creating hard edge barriers. These terraces also help to pack essential components of the park’s program underneath, including parking for bikes and cars, restrooms and pump room, etc. Wherever possible mechanical and electrical systems were located on higher ground, or designed to be either suspended or removed, while those systems that are too large to be removed are enclosed in waterproof sealed rooms reinforced to resist the floodwaters’s lateral load.

Smale Park’s Great Lawn is an expansive area for programs and events and was intentionally left open and also designed to slow floodwaters. The low-maintenance lawn sits on top of sand-based soil and reinforced soils (microfibers reinforce to top 6” of soil) that absorb/drain water and resist compaction over time.

Despite the urban surroundings, the design team and the Parks Department also took seriously the charge to create a resilient oasis for wildlife and plants at the river’s edge. Since construction of the first phases of the park, the Parks Department has installed a native plant material palette that supports wildlife and pollinators. Thanks to their efforts with plantings and putting up educational signage throughout the park, the park was recently certified as a level one arboretum and an accredited monarch waystation– a major horticultural and ecological achievement. “The Parks Department really took over where we left off and have made it their own,” says Travis Mazerall, landscape architect and Sasaki’s project manager for the project.

Park elements designed for the enjoyment of children need particular protection from floods. Every surface of the children’s adventure playground—which contains a rock climbing canyon, log climbers, twin racing slides, a rope bridge and more—was constructed from durable materials that could stand up to both the flood and subsequent power-washing and sanitization after potentially contaminated flood waters recede. The Carol Ann’s Carousel building is located as far outside of the floodplain as possible, and designed with materials that resist flood damage as much as possible—it’s base constructed from concrete masonry units with smooth-finish and water-resistant Portland cement in public areas.

In February 2018, the parks team completed the cleanup to Smale Riverfront Park—reinstalling the recreational equipment, pressure-washing surfaces and catching and releasing stranded fish from the Great Lawn—and in less than a week the park was cleaned and reopened. And in February of this year when record flooding occurred once more, this time cresting at 56.5 feet and sticking around for over 15 days, the results were similar. Thanks to dedicated staff as well as volunteers who cleaned up debris, the park was reopened weeks later. ““While we hope this type of effort is not needed again any time soon,” Cincinnati Parks Director Wade Walcutt was quoted as saying in a recent article in Ohio Parks and Recreation Association (OPRA), “I know that plans are in place and our crews are ready to answer the call.”

Our team is currently working on Phase 6 of Smale Park which is slated to complete construction by 2020.

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